The Unwilling Adventurer - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Unwilling Adventurer ebook

R. Austin Freeman



The pioneering creator of the inverted detective story, R. Austin Freeman was a popular Edwardian author of novels and short stories featuring Dr. Thorndyke, a pathologist-detective. Freeman’s detective and mystery tales offered an innovative approach to the genre, selling thousands of copies on both sides of the Atlantic. Robert Hawke is a man on the run. After returning from business in London, he finds that a sworn enemy, Will Colville, has been shot dead and the murder weapon belongs to Hawke. But Hawke protests his innocence and is persuaded to go on the run until enough evidence is found to prevent his arrest and conviction. So begins an unwilling adventure where Hawke finds himself setting sail with a vibrant cast of men, casting off for unknown waters and strange islands. And as Hawke embarks on his exotic voyage, enemies abound in the most unlikely of places.

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THE wayfarer on life’s highway who has reached that stage of this earthly pilgrimage which is graciously miscalled middle age–a period when the full-blooded green of summer begins to show certain sere and yellow adumbrations of approaching autumn; when the silvery frost of age has begun to gather on the temples and Time has written, in many a lined inscription, the epitaph of passions dead and gone, of sorrows buried and forgotten; if he should pause to look back and retrace in memory the stages of his journey, will surely let his eye roam fondly over the fairer scenes–the shady dells, the flower sprinkled meadows, the quiet streams by which he has rested in joy and peace–rather than the dismal wilderness through which he has struggled, despairing and dismayed.

And so, if he should take up the pen, to set down for the eye of others, those things that have befallen him by the way, it is needful that he should hold with a firm hand the reins of memory, lest, like a mere gossip, he should but talk for his own pleasure and so weary the reader. For, left to his own inclinations he will tend to let his thoughts turn back to the springtime of his life, when this old and outworn world was a thing newly discovered, its simplest and commonest pleasures as yet unstaled by custom, and its illusions unspoiled by disappointment; when the future loomed far ahead with the uncertain beauty of a mirage, and no weary journeys lay behind. For even when the wheels of life begin to run stiffly through the wear and rust of age, when pleasures have become dull and the future is but an empty coffer wide agape, still memory can raise the ghosts of dead-and-gone delights until they seem to live again and the world is once more young.

But I should seem a dull historian if I should fill these pages with an account of my childhood or even of my youth; which, to speak the truth, were as little eventful as those of other country-bred lads, so I shall pass over these early days and come to that period when my misfortunes and adventures began.

Yet it is necessary for me shortly to inform the reader as to my condition, that I may not come before him as a complete stranger; for otherwise would much of that which follows be barely intelligible.

My father, then, was a Kentish yeoman, or gentleman farmer as they say nowadays, of a good family though of slender means, and a very agreeable and cultivated man, as I have been told. But I have no clear recollection of him, for he died before I was yet five years old, and was followed a few months later by my mother; when, as my high relations would have none of me, I came to live with a kinsman of my mother, Mr Roger Leigh of Shorne, in Kent. And at Shorne I remained up to the time at which this history opens, finding in Mr Leigh and his wife the kindest and most indulgent of parents, and in their daughter Prudence, a loyal and affectionate sister.

At the time of the opening of this history I was just twenty years of age; indeed this chronicle commences with the day following my twentieth birthday, on which day it had been arranged that I should make a journey to London, partly as a sort of birthday treat and partly to transact some business for my uncle–as I called Mr Leigh–with the hop-merchants of Southwark. It was no uncommon thing for me to spend a day or so in London, for the town was but little more than twenty miles distant, and what with the stage-wagons and coaches from Rochester and the tilt-boats at Gravesend, there was no difficulty in making the journey; and my own custom was to walk up to town, and return by water, either in atilt-boat or on some hoy or other craft with whose master I was friendly. Yet, accustomed as I was to these journeys, and often as they had occurred, the incidents of this day are impressed on my memory with the most singular vividness; and the very aspect of the house, as I came down from my chamber in the grey dawn, rises before me now clear in every detail, although, God knows, I little suspected then that I was bidding a long farewell to the familiar scene.

I can see the old kitchen, wide and low-ceiled, and crossed by age-blackened beams, as it was revealed when I threw back the shutters and let in the wan morning light: the clean brick floor, the yawning fireplace with the great hook swinging above it, the polished pewter ware and blue china platters ranged above the dresser; the copper warming-pan glistening on the wall beside the painted bellows. With especial distinctness do I recall the old black-faced clock that hung in its sheltered corner solemnly counting out the seconds, while the little wooden smith on top of it hammered away with noiseless stroke at the red shoe on his anvil: and I remember finding something whimsically solemn in the thought that all through the dead hours of the night, when the silent house was wrapped in darkness and its inmates in slumber, the little tireless figure was thus pursuing his labours, unseen by mortal eye.

When I had breakfasted heartily and drunk a cup of ale, I thrust into my pocket the parcel of provisions that my aunt–as I called Mrs Leigh–had set ready for me, and let myself out, closing the door silently behind me. The sun was already up when I came out into the lane, and the world was waking to the beauty of a perfect summer’s day. A lark was carolling aloft in the blue sky, the voices of countless birds resounded from the shady woods on the hill and an unseen crow-boy was springing his rattle far away among the corn.

Along the footpath, between walls of fast-ripening wheat, all sprinkled with drowsy poppies and blue-eyed speedwell, I strode with a gay heart, singing aloud as I went, until I crossed the stile into the Dover road.

Early as it was, I was not the only person afoot. Near to the manor house of Parrock I overtook old Tom Staples with a cartload of grain that he was taking to the Gravesend mill, and when I passed the Prince of Orange Tavern the shutters were already open, and there was the landlord himself taking his morning draught at the open door. By the time I reached Northfleet the business of the day was in full swing; a couple of wagons stood outside the Leather Bottel and from the shipyard under the cliff came the din of beaten trunnles and the ring of the caulkers’ mallets.

I halted for a few minutes to gaze upon the ever new spectacle of the busy river. The tide was beginning to flow, and already the anchorage was studded with the white sails of vessels bound for London, while a pair of large line-of-battleships went sidling up Northfleet Hope, backing and filling their great topsails as they drove to and fro across the river.

When I had watched the two warships turn round into Fiddler’s Reach I resumed my journey, stepping out very briskly, for the morning was still cool and fresh; but although I loitered nowhere, the clock of St George’s Church was striking ten when I turned out of the Dover road into High Street, Southwark.

At first I was disposed to go and dispatch my business out of hand, that I might have the day free before me; but reflecting that the coaches and wagons would be presently arriving, I hastened to the George Inn by London Bridge to bespeak a bed, and to wash and brush off the white dust of the chalky Kentish road. When I had finished my ablutions I stepped out on to the gallery, and, leaning my elbows on the wooden parapet, fell to watching the scene of bustle and business in the inn-yard below, where the Guildford coach was preparing to start.

For some minutes I remained absorbed in idle contemplation of the departing travellers, when I was startled by feeling my hat twitched from my head, and, springing round, mighty fierce, as may be supposed, was not a little amazed to find the gallery empty and my hat lying on the floor. But as I gazed around in search of the cause of this phenomenon, my eye caught a loop of thin cord rapidly ascending in front of the gallery, and, on leaning out over the balustrade and looking up, I was confronted by a pair of grinning faces thrust over the rail of the gallery above, each as round, as red and as shining as a copper warming-pan. Almost instantly, however, the grin on one of them faded into an apologetic smirk and its owner hailed me in a voice like the below of a shorthorn bull.

“Save us Master Hawke, but who’d a thought to see you here in the old George! I ask your pardon, sir, for the liberty, but d’ ye see this here shipmate of mine, which is an unmannerly son of a gun, to go a skylarking with the quality–”

“What!” roars the other, “me a-skylarking! Fine talk this, shipmate, when you done it yourself. Look at him, master, with the spunyarn in his fist at this very moment, and trying to cast the blame on to a innocent man.”

The two faces suddenly vanished, and, immediately after, a pair of uncommonly massive legs appeared dangling over the balustrade, and the astonished people in the inn-yard were regaled with the sight of a square-built, pursy little man coming hand over hand with monkey-like agility down the pillar that supported the upper gallery. As he stepped lightly down from the rail of the balustrade he held out a square, tar-stained hand.

“And what might you be doing up in London, Master Robert?” he asked, as I grasped his great, rough paw. “I thought you were down among the cornfields and hop-gardens at Shorne.”

“So I was this morning,” I replied; and I then told him what had brought me to town.

“As to me, Master Robert,” said my friend, “perhaps you mightn’t think I’d come up to pay my respects to the Comptroller of Customs.”

“No, indeed,” I replied, with a laugh; for Toby Rooke was master of the cutter Tally Ho, the most bare-faced smuggler on the south coast.

At this moment Toby’s companion made his appearance, having condescended to walk down the stairs like an ordinary mortal, and stood a few paces away, grinning shyly and staring into his hat which he held in his hands, the very picture of embarrassment.

Toby proceeded to do the honours of introduction.

“This here swab what you sees before you,” said he, “is Bill Muffin. Billy, come and show yourself.”

Thereupon Bill Muffin advanced, hunched up his back, and gave a tug at his forelock, as though he were pulling a bell-rope.

“It’s all on account of Bill, here, that I came up to London,” said Toby. “You see, I heard that a Guineaman was fitting out in the Pool and that her master was on the look-out for a mate; and as Bill thought he would like to have a change from our trade and try his luck in deep water, I sent word to the captain that I knew the very man to suit him, so he sends me word back asking me as a favour to meet him here today at eight bells, and bring my mate with me; and here I am and here’s Bill.”

“The captain is mighty careful to take so much trouble in choosing a mate,” I remarked.

“So I was thinking myself,” replied Toby; “but it’s a queer trade, d’ye see, sir, is the Guinea trade. Gold dust and ivory are costly stuffs, and you want to know the men as is a-going to handle ‘em.”

Here our conversation was interrupted, for a stranger appeared at the head of the stairs and advanced along the gallery towards us, attracting our attention immediately by the oddity of his appearance. He was a somewhat tall man and immensely fat, not alone in his paunch–which was like a terrestrial globe–but in his face and limbs; yet notwithstanding his great size, he walked with a light, springy step, and as silently as a cat.

His aspect impressed me disagreeably at once, I could hardly say why, except that he was excessively uncomely. His large, puffy face was of a tallowy paleness with a long mouth stretched across it, of which the lips were so rolled in that it seemed but a great wrinkle under his nose. He had, moreover, what sailors call a swivel eye, so that one could not tell at what he was looking, and his grey wig fitted so ill that it listed over to one side exposing a tuft of red hair above his ear.

We drew up against the balustrade to let him pass, but when he came opposite to us he halted and bent his gaze upon Toby, or Bill Muffin, or both of them at once–for it was impossible to be certain upon the matter.

“I take you to be a mariner, friend,” said he.

“Right, master,” said Toby; “that is if you mean me,” he added hastily.

“I do,” replied the fat man sourly, “or I should not have addressed you.”

“No offence I hope, master, but I wasn’t certain, d’ye see,” said Toby.

“I came here,” pursued the stranger, ignoring the apology, “to seek one, Tobias Rooke.”

“Then you’ve made your port at the first cast,” said Toby, “for that’s my name; and I’ll make bold to say that I am talking to master Enoch Murking.”

“You are,” replied the stranger, “and I suppose one of these friends of yours is the mate you sent me word of.”

Here he fixed a cold grey eye upon me, and I lifted my hat and bowed; but as he paid no regard to my salutation, I concluded that the other eye was the one in use at the moment, and that it was directed at Bill Muffin, for that bold mariner had become suddenly covered with embarrassment and hung his head until his well-greased queue stuck out behind like a pump handle.

I thought this a good opportunity to make my escape, so I excused myself, observing that I must go to settle my business and leave them to theirs; but Toby would not be satisfied until I had promised to return anon and take a bite with him. Accordingly, when I had finished with the hop-merchants, I came back to the ‘George,’ and, having inquired of the drawer for Mr Rooke, was directed to the coffee-room, where I found Toby and the other two seated at a table awaiting my arrival. They had kept back the meal for me but they were not without refreshment, for a jug of pop-in–a liquor compounded of a quart of strong ale and a quartern of brandy–stood on the table three parts empty; and I could perceive by the complexions of my friends and the sprightliness of their talk that it had not been consumed in vain.

Under the influence of an excellent dinner and a further supply of liquor, even the austere Captain Murking relaxed somewhat and related many strange things concerning the countries that he had visited. For it seemed he commanded the ship Charity in which he had for many years traded to the Guinea Coast; a land that, he assured us, by no means merited its evil reputation; and he rounded up his encomiums upon this ill-omened coast by asking me, rather suddenly, if I should not like to see its wonders and beauties for myself.

“If it were only the matter of my own inclinations,” I replied, “I should be disposed to say yes; but as I have both means and occupation at home I have no excuse for roving.”

“Wisely spoken and like a godly youth,” said Captain Murking, smiling greasily and filling his glass afresh; “The call of duty is louder than that of pleasure to the righteous man. Still ‘tis a pleasant life in Guinea, where the summer never wanes, and where flowers bloom and fruit ripens all the year round. ‘Tis a profitable life too,” he added thoughtfully; “for nowhere in the world may a man grow rich so quickly as there, where the very dust of the earth and ooze of the river sparkles with the good red gold.”

The picture thus drawn by this strange unsailorlike shipmaster of the far-away African coasts, impressed me, I am free to confess, not a little; for I was but a mere country lad, and my imagination had already been set a-roving by the white sailed Argosies that stole into the river on every tide. Yet I could not but reflect that Captain Murking had, on his own showing, spent many years on the Guinea Coast, whence it should follow that he was either very rich or very unfortunate; and I was on the point of saying somewhat to that effect when the captain rose–the meal being now finished and all the liquor drunk–and hoisting a great globular copper watch out of his fob, declared that he must get on board his ship.

“Is Bill a-coming with you, master?” asked Toby.

“William Muffin had better come on board now,” replied Murking, “that I may show him his berth and give him directions about the cargo. And I trust,” he added, “That I shall find him, as you say, a careful seaman, and a God-fearing man who will set a profitable example to the crew.”

“You will find Bill Muffin as good a seaman as ever stepped a plank,” said Toby a little sulkily; “but as to t’other matter, why d’ye see we h’ant no call for it in our trade.”

“No,” assented Murking, “‘tis a godless traffic as you say. Howsoever, I wish you a good day Master Rooke, with many thanks for your good offices. And you also, young sir, I wish you God speed; and should you desire a sight of my craft before she sails, I am always to be heard of at the ‘Ship Aground’ in Redriff.”

I thanked him for his courtesy and accompanied him out into the yard, where Toby and I stood watching him as he took his way through the arch, followed by the reluctant Bill Muffin, the latter winking and grimacing at us over his shoulder as he went.

“There’s a hypocritical, psalm-singing old slush pot for you,” exclaimed Toby, as the two men turned into the High Street. “God-fearing, forsooth! Show me a pious shipmaster and I’ll show you a damned rascal.”

I laughed at Toby’s prejudice (though, to be sure, I was little prepossessed by the captain’s piety myself), and proposed that, now we were rid of Bill and the captain, we should cross the bridge and take a look at the town, as I was desirous of buying one or two little presents for Prudence and my aunt and uncle.

Accordingly we took our way towards the city across the bridge, stopping to lean over the parapet for a while and watch the watermen from the Pool shooting the rapids through the narrow arches, on the flood tide.

When I had made my purchases, we sauntered away westward, gazing about us with infinite relish at the novelties around, and mightily diverted by all the life and bustle of the town; and then, when we had gazed our fill at the crowded streets, the fine ladies and modishly dressed dandies, we must needs go to the play, where we were nearly stifled by the heat; and so at last back to our inn as tired and happy as a pair of children.

“How do you travel home tomorrow, Master Robert?” asked Toby, as we turned into the inn-yard. “Is it shank’s mare or the Rochester coach or the tilt boat?”

“I told my cousin that I should come down on board the Margate hoy,” I replied. “‘Tis more pleasant to sit on the hoy’s deck than to huddle amongst the straw in a tilt-boat, and I know the master of the Susan Solly, the hoy that sails tomorrow–a genial, honest man who will gladly give you a passage down, I have no doubt.”

“Then,” said Toby, “We may lie late tomorrow, for ‘twill not be high water until half-past ten. But we must not be too sluggardly, neither, since the hoy will haul out on the top of the tide, for certain. So pleasant dreams to you, Master Robert, and a fair wind home.”

With this he turned into the staircase (for he lay in a room on the upper gallery), and I betook myself to my chamber.

On the following morning, when we had breakfasted and paid the reckoning, we made our way over the bridge to the Wool Quay, near to the Custom House, where the Susan Solly was lying; and we were none too soon, for we had hardly stepped on to the deck when the bell at Billingsgate began to ring and we saw the tilt-boat push out from the quay, while the master of our own vessel began to cast off his shore ropes and get the square sail hoisted.

As the tilt-boat pulled past–for they had not yet hoisted the sail–I noticed Toby casting a very searching glance at her passengers, who were all in sight, the tilt being rolled up on the bails because of the heat; and on my asking him what he was regarding so earnestly, he pointed out three rather ill-looking fellows in the stern.

“I am wondering what has been a-doing at Gravesend,” said he; “for if those three rascals are not Bow Street runners, may I never land another keg.”

“They may not be going to Gravesend at all,” I said, looking at the men with a new interest nevertheless; “perhaps they are going to meet the Rochester tide-coach. There are plenty of doubtful characters about there and Chatham.”

“That’s true,” replied Toby, and as the tilt-boat vanished among the shipping in the Pool and the hoy moved out into the stream, the matter dropped.

The breeze blew light but steady from the west, to the great satisfaction of the captain; for these hoys are none of the speediest of craft, and a breeze setting fair over the taffrail suits them better than any other. With her big square sail set, and a three-cornered topsail above it, her main sheet trailing in a bight over the side, and her head sails blowing out like Cherubim’s cheeks, the Susan Solly shoved her way through the slack water in such style that she had fetched Limehouse Hole before the ebb began to overtake her.

Once clear of the crowded Pool, the company began to settle themselves for the voyage; and soon from the crowded deck arose a very babel of noise, as jests and laughter mingled with the crying of infants, the squeaking of a fiddle, the shouts of the sailors, and the drawing of corks. The Susan was a large hoy–near upon a hundred tons burthen–but the fifty or sixty passengers on her deck left mighty little room for walking about, and I was glad to find a seat upon an upturned barrel near the stern, where I could sit and listen to the sea gossip of Toby and the captain, or watch the seamen trimming the sails as the course was changed, and the white-capped, white-aproned cook bustling to and fro, now busy with preparations for dinner, and now stopping to coil down a rope or take a pull at a jib-sheet.

Most of the passengers were Londoners, and many of them had evidently never been afloat before, as appeared from the many odd and diverting questions they put to the sailors. They were all simple citizens–for the people of fashion travel down by the coach–and were full of high spirits and good humour, so that to watch them and listen to their talk was as good as being at a play; and I was so well entertained by them and by looking at the ships of all nations in the river and the moving panorama on the banks, that when we came to the end of Long Reach, and the Swanscombe marshes appeared just ahead, the familiar sights impressed me with surprise at the manner in which the time had slipped by.

We had just passed the village of Grays Thurrock and were heading down Northfleet Hope, when, from my perch in the stern, I observed a waterman’s towing-hook rise above the bulwark and lay hold of the lanyards of the main shrouds. Immediately afterwards the weather-beaten visage of old Simeon Speed, one of the Gravesend watermen, appeared above the rail and began peering amongst the passengers as though looking for someone. I hailed him by name, and as soon as he saw me he beckoned.

“Why Simeon,” said I, as I stepped across to the side, “what brings you aboard of the Margate hoy?”

The old man leaned inboard and said in a low voice.

“Miss Leigh, sir, is alongside, and she bid me ask you to please step into the boat with her; she has some matters of importance to tell you about.”

I looked over the side and saw my cousin Prudence sitting in the boat with her hood drawn nearly over her face; so with a few hurried words of explanation, I bid adieu to the captain and Toby Rooke, and, climbing over the high bulwark, let myself down into the boat.

“Well, Cousin Prue,” said I, sitting down by her side, while Simeon unhitched his hook, “what wonderful piece of news is this that would not keep till I reached home?”

“A piece of news, Robert,” she answered gravely, “more wonderful than pleasant. But I shall not tell it you now. I want you to land at the jetty here, and do exactly as I bid you. I shall go on shore at Grays and call at one or two shops; then I shall take the way to Chadwell, and I wish you to meet me on the road near to Grays; but if you see anyone coming along the road keep out of sight if you can.”

“This is all very mysterious,” said I, with a strong feeling of uneasiness.

“It will all be made clear when you meet me,” she replied; “and now go ashore and do as I have said.”

Simeon had brought the boat up alongside a little wooden stage, and he now steadied her with his hook as I mounted the slippery steps. Prudence waved her hand as the boat pushed off, and I turned away across the Chadwell marshes, disturbed no less by my cousin’s pale and anxious face than by the strange directions she had given me.

I strolled off at an easy pace across the marshes, for I knew that the boat would take some time pulling up to Grays against the strong tide that sets into the bight at the top of Northfleet Hope; indeed I could see her creeping slowly upstream, and could contrast her sluggish movement with the swift progress of the hoy, the bellying sails of which I could perceive over the low land, slipping down Gravesend Reach, borne forward by wind and tide. Presently I struck a small cart-road that crossed the marshes to the west of the hamlet of Little Thurrock, and proceeding along this, at length came out into the high road from Grays to Chadwell St Mary, within a couple of hundred yards of the former. In accordance with my cousin’s directions, I had kept a bright look-out, but had not encountered a single person upon the marshes. Here, however, on the high road, there were several foot passengers in sight, as well as a wagon; so in order to keep out of sight and yet maintain a watch for my cousin’s approach, I took my station behind a thin part of the hedge, at a bend in the road, where I could command, through the branches, a view right into the village, and sat down to wait.

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